Clause 53

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 18 April 2006.

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Power to impose requirements on traffic authorities as regards protective equipment at level crossings

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Clause stand part.

Government amendment No. 111.

Government new clause 30—Safety arrangements at level crossings.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport 6:00, 18 April 2006

Once again, I recommend that the clause does not stand part of the Bill. I hope, however, that the Committee will support new clause 30 and amendment No. 111.

This group of clauses is well intentioned. Every one of us agrees with the intent behind them. As we said, drivers who try to go through level crossings need to be dealt with severely, and we must think much more clearly about what protective measures and other measures are appropriate at level crossings. The clauses represent a cri de coeur by Network Rail, which felt that people were not listening to it when it identified the need to improve level crossings. I take full responsibility for that, although I wish that it had come to me first, rather than tabling amendments. We could have helped each other to arrive at the Government’s new clause, rather than the group of clauses inserted in the Lords.

There was a difference of opinion between the Government’s lawyers and Network Rail. Network Rail felt that the current legislation did not specify clearly enough the duty of local authorities to help it make level crossings safe. Equally, it felt that when deciding what measures to put in place, there was a legal dispute about what constituted rail equipment and road equipment. The Government’s view was that the law was clear and that there were responsibilities on local authorities as well as Network Rail. However, when we discussed the legislation with Network Rail, we realised that it could be drafted more clearly so that everyone understands their responsibilities. Hence, new clause 30 makes it clear who is responsible for safety at level crossings and who is required to work with Network Rail to devise and provide new measures for making level crossings safer.

In some cases, those measures will include rumble strips to remind drivers how fast they are going as they approach a level crossing. In others, the measures might be as simple as improved signage on the  approach or the provision of CCTV for better enforcement at a level crossing. Whatever measures are necessary must be provided to make level crossings safe, and everybody responsible for providing that equipment must realise that they have a duty to work together to devise and put in place safe arrangements.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), I am pleased to say that in case there was any doubt about whether the new arrangements would fall on the council tax payer, Network Rail has agreed to pay for any improvements identified as a result of the new clause. However, it will still be the responsibility of local authorities to help implement the improvements and to work with Network Rail to design them and make level crossings much safer.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

From new clause 30, I see that the Secretary of State may make an order under the Level Crossings Act 1983. I am always annoyed with myself for not doing my research in sufficient depth, but will my hon. Friend assure us that CCTV cameras or safety cameras fall within the definition of “protective equipment” under the 1983 Act?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

Not being the lawyer that my hon. Friend is, I am always slow to give such assurances. It is my intention that such equipment should fall within the 1983 Act. If it does not, and for some reason CCTV cannot be provided because of the way in which our new clause is drafted, I shall seek to deal with that at the remaining stages. My understanding is that new clause 30, together with amendment No. 111, will allow CCTV enforcement systems to be provided at level crossings in exactly the way he seeks.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

When my hon. Friend was explaining new clause 30, he said that the Secretary of State would be able to order anything that he thought necessary to make level crossings safer. Things other than safety cameras might not be covered by the 1983 Act as they should be. Will he extend his research to ensure that we are fireproof on this matter?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I am certainly happy to do that. My understanding is that one of the difficulties that we got into was that the legislation called for rail equipment to be provided and therefore there was a problem defining exactly what “rail equipment” was. Equipment specifically to do with the road might not be covered by the term “rail equipment”. Our proposals now make it clear that rail equipment in this regard means equipment necessary to make the railway safe. Therefore, such things will fall within the legislation’s remit, and I hope the Committee agrees on that. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that I shall double check that before we reach the remaining stages, because it is our intention that all parties that have a responsibility to make the railway safe use their powers to do so and co-operate in ensuring that appropriate designs are agreed so that we can make progress.

I just reiterate that none of us in the Committee is in any disagreement about the need to make level crossings safe or about the heinous nature of offences where people try to drive across such crossings. New  clause 30 and amendment No. 111 will be an effective way of dealing with the problem, along with the assurances I gave earlier about enforcement, on which we will make progress as rapidly as possible. I cannot speak for Network Rail, but my understanding is that it is content with what we propose. Given that, I hope that the Committee will subsequently support the Government proposals and agree to clause 53 not standing part of the Bill.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

As I understand it from the Minister’s explanation, new clause 30 tidies up and makes more specific the responsibilities in clause 53. To that extent, I suspect that the proposal is largely welcome. I hope that he will cast some light on amendment No. 111. Why do we need to repeal the words “barriers or other”? What is the intention of the amendment?

The other problem with new clause 30 is that while it introduces a number of preventive measures, it does not achieve what we were aiming to do in terms of examining the failure to stop at traffic lights. The Minister gave assurances about consultation, saying that it would be tackled by his subsequent amendments. I am unsure whether anything in new clause 30 does anything to tackle the problem that we tried to highlight.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

As far as the latter point is concerned, my reference to stricter enforcement and to increased penalties does not relate directly to new clause 30, but to powers elsewhere in the Bill where we have already agreed that we can increase penalties if appropriate and that we can increase the number of endorseable points that someone can get on their licence if they commit a particular offence. One of the assurances sought by the Conservatives was that there should be a thorough consultation about graduated penalties before we debated the matter properly in Committee and before the House took a position on it. That is why there will have to be a consultation process and further debate in the House. I do not believe, however, that that will unnecessarily delay increasing the penalties in a way that the hon. Member for Wimbledon might fear.

Based on the experience of the hon. Member for North Shropshire, it is not so much a question of whether the penalties are right at the moment, but that they are not being imposed at all because people are not being caught jumping traffic lights at level crossings. Those involved in the 73 incidents that he mentioned have not been penalised at all. We can get to grips with that situation straight away while discussing the increase in the seriousness of the penalties that can be incurred when someone is caught.

If I judge the mood of the Committee correctly, and if that mood is reflected by the mood of the House when the consultation is over, I suspect we will have no difficulty agreeing more severe penalties for those who commit offences at level crossings. The penalties in respect of dangerous driving and the definitions of dangerous and careless driving are already on the  statute book, and the police can already catch people for such offences and prosecute them.

New clause 30 deals with a different aspect, which is to clarify who is responsible for making level crossings safe. Network Rail was concerned about the identification of improvements needed at particular level crossings. Such improvements had to be implemented by the highway authority, which was usually the local council, and the highway authority was not prepared to engage with Network Rail in discussing design improvements and the provision of equipment, either because it thought it would cost money or because it did not see it as a priority for its road system. Network Rail was left in the frustrating position of having identified a problem that could be dealt with by some sort of engineering solution or the provision of safety equipment, while being unable to get the highway authority, which was legally the body that had to provide that equipment, to take the necessary action.

The new clause will determine that local authorities have such a duty to engage with Network Rail and that they have the duty to provide equipment when it has been identified as the appropriate equipment necessary to make conditions safe. Network Rail has said that it will pay for the process so local authorities do not need to be concerned about getting involved. It will clearly not be a burden on the council tax payer.

We are also making the definition of equipment clearer. It is not just going to refer to equipment specific to the railway; it can be equipment specific to the process of making the railway safer. Such equipment might otherwise be better defined as road equipment. I am advised that the term “barriers” is to be removed as part of the process of making it clearer that equipment that can be provided will not just come from a prescriptive list of equipment appropriate to the railway. Instead, there will be a much wider definition including equipment more akin to that used to control traffic movement on the road. That will make the legislation clearer from the point of view of the local authorities and Network Rail, which will have to work together on the redesign of some level crossings following the implementation of the Bill.

I hope that that is the reassurance that the hon. Member for Wimbledon seeks and that he will support the Government’s position.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 53 disagreed to.